Ingredient Insights: What Is Your Ingredient? February 29

Feb. 29, 2012
The food industry is investing heavily in a growing body of specialized ingredients, but the scientific names of many of these materials can have a chilling effect on the ignorant and become a stumbling block in the future of the ingredient.

How many would be comfortable eating a food containing: glucomannans, laminaribiose oligosaccharides, catecholamines (such as norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, tryptophan, indole compounds, leucocyanidin, quercetin and its 3-Ogalactoside, 3-O-glucoside, and 3-O-rhamnosyl glucoside, L-ascorbate, niacinamide, pyridoxamine, and albuminoids?  Not many – from experience with asking this question of many in the food industry. But this is simply a partial list of the phytocompounds that occur naturally in bananas.  That the chemical "accent" of these words holds such a high "scare quotient" among consumers of today is an important issue in the ingredient business.

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The food industry is investing heavily in a growing body of specialized ingredients to address the more urgent needs of food availability, nutritional content, and the inherent demands of distribution and food safety.  But the scientific names of many of these materials can have a chilling effect on the ignorant and become a stumbling block in the future of the ingredient.

The word "ingredient" means "a part of a mixture" and originates in Latin (ingredins means to enter or ingress). The word "ingredient" that showed up largely in the context of cookery, has of late moved center stage of not only the food industry but also of conversations about public health and wellness and even entertainment. Newspapers and popular magazines have begun expounding on the risk / benefits of food ingredients and sadly, many of these discussions are slanted either because of industry sponsorship or activist agendas.  Needless to say, the naming of food ingredients is a formidable challenge and especially tricky these days.  The exercise entailing careful navigation around the fine line between clever marketing and downright puffery begs for transparency and education.

Intrigued or turned off: people react emotionally to the names of ingredients and are alternately perplexed or peeved about some food ingredient or the other.  The situation calls for the food industry to engage in dialogue with the public about what is in their foods and why.

The concept of food ingredients is not new.  Since time immemorial, ingredients have served humans well with useful functions in a variety of foods—fresh and preserved. Salt was used to preserve foods of all kinds, sugar preserved fruits and also masked bitterness, herbs and spices were added to improve flavor, and acids were used to pickle (and preserve) foods. 

How people procured and cooked their food was pretty much the same for centuries until various technologies crept in to shift their reliance to commercially prepared foods.  Food processing advances in conjunction with the growing consumer tendency to reach for prepared foods instead of making it themselves, has led to the mushrooming of specialized ingredients to help make these preparations flavorful, nutritious, safe, convenient, colorful and affordable.

The Food and Drug Administration maintains some 3000 plus ingredients in a database, many of which are still used routinely in our homes:  for e.g., sugar, salt, flours, baking powder, baking soda, vanilla, yeast, oils, spices and colors. Yet, even with scientific evidence supporting the safety and reason for the use of these ingredients in foods, the subject of food ingredients continues to be riddled with myths and misperceptions and lately, litigations.

Concerns about a food ingredient arise when people encounter an unfamiliar name or anything that sounds like a complex chemical compound. People don't realize that practically every food that is eaten—whether a just picked banana or home-cooked brown rice—consists entirely of chemical compounds that determine its flavor, color, texture and nutritive value. The general lack of understanding has led to a rampant blanket suspicion of many ingredients without distinguishing between synthetic additives, nature identical biosimilars, extracts, fabricated food components, and   minimally processed food ingredients.

Kantha Shelke is a principal at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science and research firm specializing in industry competitive intelligence, expert witness services, and new product/technology development and commercialization of foods and food ingredients for health and wellness.

This seems like an invitation to ingredient companies to take advantage of the opportunity to educate not only marketers and product developers among clients but also the people who ultimately consume the foods about what's in their ingredient, where it comes from, why it is processed the way it is, and how it benefits the people. All the advertising and marketing gimmicks in the world cannot stand up to the power of simple transparency and education about what is in your ingredient. Contrary to popular belief, given the reach of the Internet today, consumer education is not expensive.  When people understand the reason a certain ingredient is in their foods, they are willing to weight the benefits against the risks and decide for themselves what to feed their families. Innovations in ingredient technology can yield competitive advantage efficiently and sustainably in the marketplace if the core essentials of the how and why of the ingredient are translated into nutrition and health terms to educate shoppers on why they are relevant to them.

Innovative ingredients—those that go beyond the fundamental functions of stabilizing, sweetening, preserving, acidifying, coloring and flavoring—that are driving today's foods businesses are largely either cost-saving ingredients or health and wellness value-added ingredients.  Processors can expect to see more innovative solutions that impact the nutritive value of prepared foods, but will need to use transparency and education to create a point of differentiation and convey specific messages to the market.

Ingredient branding may have come and gone, but the ingredient itself is the core destination reason that is poised to create immense potential for food manufacturers and their customers.  That shoppers continue to seek healthy foods should be motivation enough for food processors (and ingredient suppliers) to make their core ingredients the focus of their communications with the market. 

Processors can expect to see more ingredient solutions that impact the value of prepared foods in terms of nutrition profile. It's imperative that suppliers work closely with their customers and help them be specific about the messages to the market.